Whether we want to admit it or not, higher institutions are facing a growing gap when it comes to preparedness and achievement. The headlines coming out paint a particularly grim picture of success rates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs. Only 40 percent of students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete their degree. What’s more disheartening, Black and Latinx students have a significantly higher probability of switching out of STEM majors and completing a degree in a non-STEM field.

These issues aren’t confined to today’s generation of students. As we learned from six inspiring STEM faculty, they too faced hurdles in their own undergraduate experience. Here, they reflect on their past learning obstacles that many students are now coming up against years later. 

This is part one in a two-part series on STEM student success. Stay tuned for our second instalment where we share how faculty are making their field more equitable.

The challenge: Confining student success in STEM

Not seeing students as people

Part of humanizing learning involves seeing students as people with diverse and unique needs. Unfortunately, these professors didn’t get the level of support they wanted from their faculty when they were enrolled in higher ed themselves. “I did go to office hours occasionally but most of my faculty were research faculty so I was considered a pest as opposed to someone they really wanted to see,” shares Stephanie Dillon, Director of Freshman Chemistry Labs at Florida State University. 

Students also value opportunities to see the ‘real you’ during class time. But again, lack of engagement is an issue that runs deep in higher education. “I was the student who would sit in the very last row and do crossword puzzles. I never really got to know my instructor that well,” says John Redden, Associate Professor-in-Residence in the Physiology and Neurobiology department at the University of Connecticut. 

Academic support is only one determining factor of student success. Providing historically underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students with the resources they need to thrive can make a world of difference. It was a moment with a mentor that pushed Angela Seliga, Physiology Laboratory Manager at Boston University, to fully embrace an empathy-first mindset in her classroom. “Even though my primary job is here in the classroom, I always ask myself, ‘what can I do to help you learn better?’ Sometimes it’s about content, sometimes it’s about resources. Sometimes it’s just about life,” Seliga says.

A pervasive ‘weed out’ culture

There has long been a narrow pathway to success in STEM disciplines. Faculty reflect on the ‘weed-out’ culture—one that removes low-performing students from pursuing upper-year STEM education. “It wasn’t uncommon to walk into a class and have the professor say ‘look to your left, look to your right. Only one of you will be left at the end of three or four years.’ I felt that that was discouraging to people who could have otherwise made some really important contributions to the discipline,” says Lourdes Norman-McKay, Professor of Biological Sciences at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

Other faculty like Daniel Collins, Instructional Associate Professor of Chemistry at Texas A&M University, believe that the ‘weed out culture’ is partly fueled by cramming too much content into lessons. Adding to that, Collins has come to realize that he simply can’t teach using the same methods that he was once exposed to as a student. “I have a lot of first-generation students from small high schools. Maybe they’ve had one semester of chemistry. For me, it’s recognizing that these students aren’t me,” he says. 

Soft skill building can also help incoming freshmen persist and see real value in their curriculum. But made clear by Beverly Kris Jaeger-Helton, Teaching Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, there has long been an emphasis on technical rigor over soft skills that will serve students beyond higher ed. “When I first started in engineering, there was a strong emphasis on the technical foundation. And I didn’t hear much about creativity and innovation to build on that foundation—it was something I had to explore on my own,” she says.

Watch the video below to see how your peers are redefining outcomes in STEM.

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